June 20, 2008

Campaign Saturation Point: Can Barack H. Obama Buy the Presidency?

Hatched by Dafydd

Tom Bevan published a fascinating post questioning the conventional "wisdom" that Barack H. Obama is bound to win, because he will have a huge monetary advantage over John S. McCain in the general election:

But there's also the possibility that, as with the primaries, Obama's vulnerabilities as a candidate are significant enough that McCain (and perhaps more specifically a 527 group) won't need a ton of money to be competitive in some key battleground states.

If nothing else, the general election appears to be shaping up as an interesting test case in asymmetrical political warfare.

I sympathize with Bevan's position, of course, because I have been saying the same thing for some time. But it needs more fleshing out than Bevan gave it in his (too brief!) blogpost.

I emphatically believe that every campaign in every election generates a campaign saturation point (CSP), beyond which further campaigning -- ads on TV and radio, appearances on talk shows, billboards, posters, signs, rallies, debates, GOTV, and door-knocking electioneering -- diminish, rather that augment a candidate's electoral performance. This factor should be measured in campaign density, not duration: You don't want to stop campaigning two months before the election, but you might want to throttle back on your campaigning to avoid oversaturating the market (inundating voters).

Past that point, no amount of money a campaign has on hand will help... and it can hurt a candidate badly, since there is an almost irresistable impulse for a campaign to burn through every penny it raises... even if doing so hurts rather than helps. Thus, Obama's "advantage" over McCain in campaign cash won't be as big as the raw figures naively indicate... and may not exist at all, depending where Obama's CSP lands.

CSP is a very hard factor to measure, not least because the CSP depends upon several variables, including (a non-exhaustive list):

  • The intelligence of the campaign: A smart campaign has a higher CSP than a stupid one;
  • The importance of the underlying issues: If the contested issues impact the lives of ordinary voters, they will have a greater tolerance for the candidates campaigning on those issues;
  • The likability of the candidate himself: Voters will be more tolerant of a candidate they like than one they dislike;
  • Competing interests: If there are many other stories competing for voters' interests, they will be less tolerant of a candidate campaigning.

But no matter how smart a campaign is, how important the issues, how likeable the candidate, and how little else may be on TV or in the news, there is still a CSP beyond which more campaign intensity is counterproductive.

The concept of CSP is homologous to a similar phenomenon I learned about anent reconstruction money in areas devastated by war or natural disaster: You can only pump so much money into reconstruction, an amount determined by the available infrastructure: Beyond that, money is simply flushed away. In Iraq, for example, there are only so many people available at any one time, based on skill and security, to rebuild an electrical grid or sewer lines; even if you have more money in your pocket, it won't do any good to throw it around.

This point is easy to understand by a time-honored logical technique, reductio ad absurdum. (This is probably the most abused argument in the rhetorical lexicon; but I am a trained professional, so you can trust me to use it correctly, with aplomb.)

Consider this ridiculously extreme hypothetical scenario:

Imagine that you sit down to watch your favorite TV show... and each and every last commercial is an advert for a candidate -- the very candidate you most like. Every commercial -- back to back to back during the commercial breaks.

Assume they're all clever, all different, and you really like the guy. He or she is talking about issues dear to your heart; and frankly, there is nothing else happening in the world to compete for your political attention. In other words, a perfect test case.

But this barrage of ads goes on day after day, week after week, month after month: All you ever see on TV, hear on the radio, see on billboards, or read in the newspapers in between the actual programming or news stories are ads for your candidate.

It doesn't take much imagination to realize what a nightmare this would soon become. Your guy would start reminding you of Big Brother in Orwell's classic 1984. You start thinking of the Police song: Every breath you take, every move you make, he's watching you.

After a while, you would begin muting the sound and running out of the room when a new commercial came on. You would avert your eyes from his image on posters along the street or adverts in the newspaper. And I think we can all agree that the net effect would be that many erstwhile supporters would vote against him in the election -- out of sheer pique, if nothing else.

This isn't a formal proof, of course; that would require more quantification than is available. But it does strongly indicate that a CSP always exists -- at least in theory. The real question is whether it's ever reached in practice, under real-world limitations. (There! That's an example of a professional logician at work, using reductio properly. Aren't you relieved?)

I believe we're going to see a real-world test of this hypothesis. Barack H. Obama is almost certainly going to raise more money between now and November than he raised in the primary phase of the campaign, as many former Hillary Clinton supporters will now send money to Obama for the general campaign. Since he raised in excess of $275 million (!) for the primary, we can expect him to raise well over $300 million for the general. In addition, the DNC will raise some millions (despite having Howard Dean as chairman), and of course liberal 527 groups like MoveOn.org and other Soros-backed groups, NARAL, GLAAD and ACT-UP, the Kossacks, union-owned 527s, and such will have a field day.

At the end, it would not be surprising if Obama and allies spent half a billion dollars on his campaign.

No candidate in history has ever spent this much money in a presidential race, not even in constant dollars. This campaign is already unprecedented, and it's only going to push the record farther and farther as the months pass until November 4th.

By contrast, McCain -- who is accepting public financing -- will receive $84.1 million for his general election, and he cannot raise any private money to supplement that (barring minor amounts of private money raised to pay for "legal and accounting expenses associated with complying with the campaign finance law.")

Apart from that $84 million, McCain will benefit from soft money raised by the Republican National Committee and from whatever GOP 527 organizations can raise and spend on his behalf. Note that this limit has nothing to do with McCain-Feingold per se; this system has been in effect since passage of the 1971 Revenue Act, the 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act, and the 1974 Amendments to the latter.

It's hard to imagine that McCain's campaign will have even as much as $200 million available for campaigning (which, until this year, would have been considered a lot of money). There is simpy no question that Team Obama will outspend Team McCain by about 2.5 to 1, and possibly by as much as 3:1.

It's clear that Democrats, both politicians and the media wing of the DNC, passionately believe that the staggering amount of cash available to Obama will, quite simply, allow him to buy the presidency. I suspect that deep down, even most Republican and conservative pols and pundits think this.

But I'm quite convinced -- in fact, let's call this a Lizardly prediction -- that far from a benefit, this will end up crossing far beyond the CSP, the campaign saturation point, and will actually impact Obama's campaign as a negative. Here's why:

  1. Right now, voters like Obama. But as candidates edge closer to their CSP, one of the first qualities to be affected is likability... voters battered by too much campaigning tend to resent and dislike the candidate who is pounding them with ads.
  2. The importance of the underlying issues will cut against Obama; he is on the wrong side of the energy issue (which is issue number one on voters' minds this year), the wrong side of the tax issue, and even (astonishingly enough) the wrong side of what to do going forward in Iraq: He's frantically dancing, trying to weasel his way out of his longstanding demand for immediate and unconditional withdrawl -- while most voters, even those who agree with Obama that the war was a mistake, nevertheless prefer victory to defeat.
  3. Obama has shown an astonishingly tin ear when it comes to the average American and what he thinks and wants; he makes gaffes all the time, the prototype being his assertion that people "cling" to guns and God because they're embittered and helpless. But the more money Obama has, the more access to the voters, the more those gaffes (which Obama often doesn't recognize until the inevitable negative reaction) will be projected across the nation.
  4. Too, candidates with Obama-sized egos tend to believe in their own genius; and the more successful they are, the more money they rake in, the more convinced they are that they know better than everybody else about everything else. Their handlers can no longer rein them in.

    (Think of the literary excesses of J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, and Stephen King: The bigger they got, the harder it became for editors to actually edit their books, which became bloated and spongy.)

    They descend into preening and gloating, or they make reckless attacks on their opponents. Often they wrest complete control of their campaigns away from the professionals -- the candidate becomes his own campaign mangler.

    If Obama enters this phase, as I think he very likely will, it will amplify point (3) above through a feedback loop: There will be fewer filters between Obama in the raw and the voters, and fewer people to tell him when he's gone off the deep end. Again.

  5. Obama's success is predicated upon a fundamentally false image: that he is a "different kind of candidate," "above politics," "beyond race," who represents "real change that we can believe in" -- indeed, practically a political messiah. But the more visibility he has, due to the sheer volume of adverts, events, and activists, the more scrutiny and skepticism he invites. At every slight misstep, the contrast between well-funded Obamania and the seemy underbelly of reality will raise the specter of hypocrisy -- a mortal political sin.

Obviously, a presidential nominee needs a certain level of money to run an effective campaign; he needs enough to pay for all the appurtenances of a modern campaign: staff, administration, transportation, lawyers, adverts, crowds of enthused acolytes, street fighters, and especially GOTV (get out the vote) efforts on election day itself. But John McCain's funding only seems scant by comparison with Barack Obama's; objectively, McCain will have plenty of cash to run a strong, effective campaign.

McCain will continue to give town-hall meetings (a very inexpensive and effective way to campaign, especially in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and so forth). And he will continue to demand that Obama debate him in just such an unstructured format... which happens to be Obama's weakest suit. (He is best at set spiels on predetermined topics that Obama can memorize or read off the teleprompter -- in other words, exactly the "Lincoln-Douglas" format that Obama insists upon.)

Eventually, I believe Obama will have to agree to at least one or two televised, prime-time town-hall meetings, because those are the only ones where audience members really feel like they participated. When he does, the contrast between how good he is in set pieces versus how dreadful he is at town-hall meetings (and how good McCain is) will stand out all the greater because of campaign saturation: It will be something completely different voters can use to judge Obama.

For these reasons and too many others to squeeze into the tiny space available in this post, I believe that we are actually going to see a clean and clear demonstration of a candidate, Barack H. Obama, far exceeding his campaign saturation point... to his detriment and McCain's benefit. It's one of many reasons I see no reason to change my prediction that John McCain will be our next president.

I don't even believe it will be that close; I predict McCain will win by more than Bush did in 2004.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, June 20, 2008, at the time of 7:32 PM

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The following hissed in response by: hunter

Just play that nice advisor of his talking about how we need to nationalize the refiners.
And then show scenes from a post office and some from an airport with TSA officers, and point out the same people who run the post office and make travel so nice will now work their magic on refining, as soon as the democrats steal the industry for them.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 9:20 PM

The following hissed in response by: scrapiron

O'dumbo fans will not tire of the ad's. They are the type folks who have watched Days Of Our lives for 30 years and still think it's real.

The above hissed in response by: scrapiron [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 20, 2008 10:07 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mr. Michael

Add on top of all his commercials the unending fawning done by the Media's talking heads. It's nice to be fed Raw Meat (or Fresh Tofu for the committed Lefties) on occasion, but an unending Obamafest will only please the Democrat base... not the swing voters he needs to win.

I wonder if satire like Saturday Night Live's hit on the Press' Obama crush in the Primary Debates will be a good sign that your CSP has been, or is about to be reached.

The campaign for President 2008 is based on who is NOT George W. Bush. The Democrats have been pushing this for years, and aren't about to give up on it now. Hillary lost in large part because she didn't disagree with Bush enough on the War to please the Democrat base. But if CSP is reached, it will become a campaign about who is not Bush... and who is not Obama, either.

McCain has a shot, but never underestimate his ability to use the Republican Machine to do what it does best: Throw elections.

The above hissed in response by: Mr. Michael [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 12:45 AM

The following hissed in response by: hunter

Mr. Michael,
Since Hillary won more votes, and crushed Obama in nearly every large state, I do not think their strategy has worked very well.
If I recall, Dukakis was this far, or farther, ahead at this time in the cycle in 1998.

The above hissed in response by: hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 5:16 AM

The following hissed in response by: Norman Rogers

Actually, the money advantage means that Obama can contest more states -- ones that McCain wouldn't ordinarily spend resources to defend. Thus, McCain would be less able to campaign in "battleground" states as his limited funds are stretched to more areas (Marshall Doctrine 101).

Remember, this is a state-by-state election, not a national one. There will be network media buys, but not so much (more PR placements).

Obama won't waste funds beyond the saturation point(s) (on purpose). He has clever people managing his campaign (he really is an empty suit).

That said, I think Obama's fund raising abilities are waning and McCain's may be waxing (the more us folks learn about Obama and the better McCain can help us forget what an arrogant asshat he really is -- the bigger his monthly haul).

The above hissed in response by: Norman Rogers [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 6:05 AM

The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist

Great post. Always the positive one, Dafydd, yes you are.

Also, great point about CSP. I'm already tired of seeing anything about him, and more just keeps pouring in. Speaking of CSP, the MSM will also willingly be adding to the problem. However, his supporters will never reach the CSP, i.e. they cannot get enough of Barack 'Big Brother' Obama.

I think The Silent Majority is also in play here, and that it is being overlooked...that it has been forgotten by Obama and the MSM.

The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 6:16 AM

The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist

HOT AIR's Ed Morrissey has an interesting take:

Obama stumbles to a $22 million May

The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 6:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: Jon S.

Agree with most everything in your post, Dafydd. Spending on ads mostly reinforces the base; he will use a lot of his money on registering new voters and GOTV.

But at this point I'm not sure I agree with the projections that the Messiah will bring in 2-3 x what McCain can. The May figures were just announced, and Obama's total take fell for the third month in a row: he raised $22 M, McCain raised $21 M.

But if you include the RNC's cash on hand with the DNC's cash on hand, McCain is well ahead at this point: $53.5 million vs. $4 million (thank you, Howard Dean, brilliant fundraiser). And according to McCain's campaign manager briefing, the Obama burn-rate is about 3x what McCain's is, so I question how smart the folks are running his show. They got the money, they spent the money, and they got ripped to shreds in the last month of primaries.

The above hissed in response by: Jon S. [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 6:45 AM

The following hissed in response by: Da Coyote

"...I don't even believe it will be that close; I predict McCain will win by more than Bush did in 2004...."

I don't know whether that'll make much difference. I've observed the decline in ability of the candidates of both parties for years, but 2008 takes the cake. We're in real trouble if the obamaloon or McKennedy are the best choices of both parties. We're definitely in the "decline" phase of our civilization.

The above hissed in response by: Da Coyote [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 7:11 AM

The following hissed in response by: Roy Lofquist

Dear Dafydd,

I couldn't agree more. This, in fact, is what I have been arguing since the 60's.

As to Obama's fundraising:

Earlier this year I posited that Obama's supporters were far more anti-Hillary than pro-Obama.


Point of interest: Rush read this on the air the next day.

Think of Hillary as Richard Nixon's comeback. No way Jose.

I also made the prediction that Obama's fundraing would go in the tank as soon as Hillary was dispatched. One swallow does not a meal make but last month's figures sure point in that direction.


The above hissed in response by: Roy Lofquist [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 12:08 PM

The following hissed in response by: John Anderson

Have you already put in a request for a grant to see if the presumptive overload will actually set enough teeth on edge to affect the election?

But JM remains in trouble, and his funding is a good indicator of that. The national comittee will pretty much have to put its money where they see it doing some good, House and Senate races, and JM is not getting the grassroot moneys that flowed to both Bush candidacies - even people who think a RINO is better than any actual Dem seem averse to actually helping.

The above hissed in response by: John Anderson [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 1:10 PM

The following hissed in response by: Davod

I saw something on Fox this morning which might be of interest.

A guy was talking about his video production group. They were making video shorts which look like normal people in normal situations caught out by the social problems of the day. Like no-health care and the like.

The videos are designed to be used on Youtube.

The guy said they were funded through donations, they were totally independant and were not a tax exempt organizaton.

This is what Republicans have to fight.

The above hissed in response by: Davod [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 2:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: TerryeL

I am already sick of Obama, the man is getting on my nerves.


Republicans need to do the same thing, only with a different message.

The above hissed in response by: TerryeL [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 3:01 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh


This is what Republicans have to fight.

Baloney. This is what Republicans must co-opt. (I see Terrye beat me to it.)

But this is a serious point: You just said this was done without coordination by the DNC or Obama... so why can't we do stuff like this? All we need are:

  1. A writer to create the vignette;
  2. Somebody with a small videorecorder (can be rented or borrowed) to film the principle photography;
  3. Maybe a director, but the writer can also be the director;
  4. Editing software that can put it in YouTube format, whatever that is.

It can't be that tough, or there wouldn't be 68 billion YouTubes on there already! The trick is to be cleverer than the Democrats (shouldn't be tough) and start propagating these videos.

(I have a friend named Kent who can tell me everything I actually need to know in order to do this, at least at an amateur level.)

Tell you what: Anybody who has a good idea for such a little minute and a half YouTube video from a GOP and/or conservative perspective, send it to us using the e-mail address in the little green box in the upper part of the right-hand column. (You have to suss it out from the jpeg; I don't want it to appear in text form on the blog, whence it will be scavanged by spambots.)

Here's an idea: How about some soldiers or Marines (in uniform, if that's not a violation of the UCMJ), combat vets from Iraq, talking about how hard it has been, how many friends they've lost... but how much it has turned around and how proud they are of the work they and their buddies have done.

And how devastated they would all feel if "they pulled us out before the final victory, and let everything we did just go to hell."

Single camera, maybe three or four guys talking about a few of the firefights they were in, the kids they gave medical care to, the schools they rebuilt, capturing al-Qaeda killers; the camera just pans back and forth between them (hand-held effect is perfect). Then the last line.

Or how about a small businessman talking about how hard it is when taxes go up; how whenever the Democrats raise the minimum wage, he has to let some of his workers go just to stay afloat; and finally saying, "small business is the backbone of the American economy... why is Barack Obama trying to kill us off?"

This sort of idea. Maybe I'll scrounge around and see if anybody I know has a videocam he's willing to lend me for approximately $0 a month.


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 21, 2008 9:23 PM

The following hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist

YouTube of mom, sister, wife, daughters, and mistresses (bad idea) before Islam takes over...then with them in burkas after Islam takes over. Maybe with dad, you, brother, and sons before and afters also...after being a large mound of dirt.

Even use the left's stuff, with counters like - you think having no health ins. is bad, then dig this.....

The above hissed in response by: KarmiCommunist [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 22, 2008 7:07 AM

The following hissed in response by: LarryD

Idea I had for an anti-Obama add, months ago:

scene: view of Obama supporters, face on.
sound: Obama speech in background, occasionally clearly audible.

Caption: Join the Cult

The above hissed in response by: LarryD [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 23, 2008 9:30 AM

The following hissed in response by: Karl

Interesting thought about the CSP. I wonder if the underlying mechanism is in any way similar to that which makes tax revenue an invariant.

A recent study showed that tax revenue was about 20% of income, pretty much regardless of where the marginal tax rate was set. By "invariant", I refer to cases where changes in an independent variable, which should result in a change in a dependent variable, don't. Thus, increasing the tax rate doesn't increase the tax take; increasing campaign spending doesn't increase votes.

The trick in such a case is to find the bottleneck(or bottlenecks) in the system, and figure out how to change them. If possible.

In the case of the CSP, the question becomes, are there variables that can be changed during a campaign that would move the CSP to a higher level?

The factors you list include:

  • Campaign intelligence

  • Importance of issues

  • Candidate likeability
  • Competing interests

Well, you might be able to change these to some extent. Campaign intelligence may be the easiest -- fire the stupid campaign manager and hire a smart one. (Telling the difference is not my problem!)
Candidate likeability may be too hard to change. Democrat Eye for the Republican Guy, anyone?
The importance of campaign issues and competing interests is probably something that depends too heavily on external events to be under the direct control of a campaign. McCain, for example, probably can't arrange to have Iran nuke Tel Aviv before the election, and Barack Obama probably can't arrange for oil companies to keep gas prices above $4/gallon until after the election. Neither one can keep American Idol off the air.
(And these are examples showing why the CSP is probably not even a fixed number over the course of a campaign. If Iran nukes Tel Aviv, you can bet the CSP will move, as people will demand to know precisely, and in great detail, what both candidates think of the event.)

The above hissed in response by: Karl [TypeKey Profile Page] at June 24, 2008 10:53 AM

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